On Success

I have spent more time lately pondering ways I hope to improve in subsequent semesters. Since my improvement list seems to be countably infinite, I thought it would  be good for my psyche to also come up with things that went really well this semester. So here are my Top 5.

1. I learned more names than ever.

After some conversations on Twitter in early January, I made the goal of learning as many student names as possible this semester. I started with the mini-goal of learning 100% of student names in my Calculus II course (enrollment: about 30). It took a couple of weeks, but I managed it! I think that it made a big difference & I’m going to challenge myself to learn 100% of next semester’s student names.

2. I tried something new & adapted to its challenges.

I implemented a standards-based approach in my Calculus II section. While there were a few speed-bumps, overall I thought it was successful. I am still formulating who I am & who I want to be as an educator, and I think my SBG approach is more aligned with my pedagogical goals than other things I have done in the past. I am also pleased that my students were willing to embark on the challenge with me and that we were able to have some honest reflection about the process of teaching & learning, outside of the context of our Calculus II content.

3. I worked to develop a coach mentality.
I have had many conversations with students about how it isn’t good for them to tie their emotional well-being to their performance on a math test. I really don’t want them to feel badly about themselves if they do badly on an exam. Instead, I want their exam grade to reflect their understanding of the material and I want them to take that information & use it to help their learning process. (Part of what SBG allowed me to do was make more clear what exactly a learning target is & what it means to master a concept.) I think I did a better job offering my students support and guidance than in the past.

Also, I think I was better at taking my own advice. While I don’t want them to be emotionally upset about their mathematical performance, I struggle with rating my skills as an educator as a function of student exam grades.  This is not a good idea! The point for all of us in my classroom should be to work toward gradual improvement over time & if we’re doing that, we need to be less harsh to ourselves. I think planting the idea “You are the coach & your role is not to score the points for the players during the game” in my own head helped me deal with class performance stress better.

4. I worked toward inspiring curiosity about math, outside of any particular course topic.
About once a week I took about ten minutes of class time to introduce cool/interesting/bizarre math ideas to my students. Several students became great question-askers: They came up with really thought-provoking questions. And I tried to bite my tongue and not provide the answers.

Some of the things we talked about were: the Banach-Tarski paradox; the Cantor set; the Hilbert Hotel; the Numberphile video (about the sum of all positive numbers being -1/12); and a crazy Slinky video showing in slow-motion what happens when you drop a Slinky.

These things were not necessarily related to what we were covering in class. But one of the things I feel it’s my job to do is inspire wonder & show how mathematics is really beautiful. I give myself an “A” for this task this semester.

5. Success with ongoing lactation
I am a nursing mom of a 9-month-old. Maintaining lactation while working full-time is a serious challenge. It’s exhausting. It takes a lot of time I could be doing other things. It takes extra calories (I’m always starving!). It required me to overcome humiliation on several occasions when people used keys to enter into my locked, private office — without first knocking — to find me pumping at my desk. (I cried every time.) It also took countless hours in front of my kitchen sink washing parts and bottles, getting ready for the cycle again tomorrow. And I honestly cannot recall the last time I slept more than three hours in a row (but it was more than 11-months ago).

A student of mine wrote me a really lovely letter last week. One of the things she mentioned was that I had inspired her with how I have balanced my work life and my family life so well, and she hopes to be just as successful at it in the years to come. (The letter is in my top desk drawer and really meant a lot to me.) It was really satisfying to be appreciated in this way, especially since I struggle with feeling imbalanced between work & family, and I regularly ponder giving up my career entirely just to have more time with my kids.

But it’s students like her that remind me that I cannot leave this career path because I feel somehow responsible for displaying that it is possible to be a mom-wife-mathematician-professor and enjoy life at the same time. I did not have enough role models like this when I was on the student side of the desk & I want to help change the demographics in that direction.


9 thoughts on “On Success

    • I concur with my colleague Theron Hitchman with respect to the door-opening: “What the hell?”

      My trick for learning names: come up with excuses to hand things back, including writing student names on stupid stuff like syllabi (back when I handed out hard copies) just to give me an excuse to actively need to know their names. I also assign the students to teams of 2–3 at the beginning, have a class roster organized by team, and relentlessly look at it over the first several class periods while they are working in teams. That way, once I learn 1 student’s name in a team, I can easily figure out the other team member’s names by the process of elimination.

      Finally, I am happy that you are staying in this career. I look up to you as an educator, and I would be sad if I didn’t get to learn from you any more.

      • Re: Intruders into my office

        Thank you for the support about my intruders. I would like to point out that I have one sign with the international breastfeeding symbol and the boldface, uppercase words “DO NOT DISTURB.” Some people (usually students) did not recognize that knocking on a door is a disturbance. So then I added a second sign, taped to the first “DO NOT DISTURB” sign, and it reads “DO NOT KNOCK.”

        These signs were present when people with keys opened the door (without knocking). So then I began putting a chair underneath the inside doorknob. One time, the door was opened by someone with a key who then felt the door hit the chair, and proceeded to then slam the door open (causing the inside chair to go flying). Since then, I also tape a sticky note over the keyhole so anyone with a key who does not see or does not read the signs then must think, “Why is this thing blocking the key hole?”

        The most recent infraction was at 12:47pm one afternoon when a student knocked several times. When I appeared at 1pm and pointed to the “DO NOT KNOCK” sign, the student said, “Well I knew your office hours began at 1pm, but I realized you were here already and I wanted you to know I was here waiting”.


  1. I was very curious about your experience with SBG. So glad it worked out well. Some advice? I would like to implement it (maybe partially) in the most advanced classes…

  2. We’re all going to complain about those damn door openers. I wouldn’t have been crying – I’d a been yelling! What the fu##!

    I hope there have been no repeat offenders.

  3. I adopted my son, so I didn’t get to breastfeed. But I remember the months of not enough sleep. After teaching, I’d go home and take a nap before picking him up at his godmother’s.

  4. Kate, I just want to echo your last paragraph: I’m probably going to be going down the parenting while keeping my professor job in the next 5 years or so, so Thank You for sharing your experiences! Of course I am also interested in hearing all about your math and teaching experiences, but serving as a role model is a huge help. 🙂

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